Tag Archives: Thomas Campion

O thou that sleep’st like pig in straw


William Davenant was a prominent poet of the Stuart age, his career spanning the reign of Charles I, the Civil War and Interregnum, and the Restoration of Charles II. He started a rumour, unintentionally, I think, or jokingly, that he was the illegitimate son of William Shakespeare: what he meant to say is that he had drawn his love for poetry and theatre from his reading of the bard’s oeuvre. He was well-known, and good enough to receive royal patronage (and, during the Interregnum, a measure of tolerance from the Cromwellian authorities) and was numbered among those poets classed Cavalier Poets. He was the butt of all sorts of jokes on account of his disfigured – that is, mostly disintegrated – nose, the result of a mercury-based treatment for syphilis, which he contracted from a prostitute. If his poetry is anything to go by (which, of course, it may not be), his disfigurement did not hinder his success with the opposite sex, about whom he continued to write poetry.

The poem below is a lyric from one of Davenant’s plays, which are not widely available these days, so it could be that some details of the poem relate to the play this was taken from. Perhaps the arch tone belongs to a character of that play too, and is not meant to represent Davenant’s own poetic persona. However, the lyric has reached us as a distinct poem, anthologised as such, while the play has been largely forgotten (so much so that where the poem is anthologised, I cannot find the play it is from mentioned by name), so I think it is fair to treat it as such. In any case, it is consistent with the way in which he wrote to and about women in his poetry.


O thou that sleep’st like pig in straw,
Thou lady dear, arise;
Open (to keep the sun in awe)
Thy pretty pinking eyes:
And, having stretched each leg and arm,
Put on your clean white smock,
And then I pray, to keep you warm,
A petticoat or dock.
Arise, arise! Why should you sleep
When you have slept enough?
Long since, French boys cried Chimney-sweep,
And damsels Kitchen-stuff.
The shops were opened long before,
And youngest prentice goes
To lay at’s master’s chamber-door
His master’s shining shoes.
Arise, arise! your breakfast stays,
Good water-gruel warm,
Or sugar-sops, which Galen says
With mace, will do no harm.
Arise, arise! when you are up
You’ll find more to your cost,
For morning’s draught in caudle-cup,
Good nutbrown ale, and toast.

The New Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse, Ed. Alastair Fowler, Oxford, 1991

To very sensitive souls, the first line of the poem, ‘thou that sleep’st like pig in straw’ sounds a bit nasty. As someone whose teenage self was called out of bed each weekend with a resolute ‘Get out your pit’, it sounds rather familiar, almost affectionate. And this impression is confirmed in the next seven lines or so: the adjectives used to describe the woman and her dressing are indeed affectionate, though humble and homely – dear, pretty, clean. We’re a distance away from pure and Platonic invocations of ideal love here and firmly in the familiar setting of the home – the bedroom to be precise. There is a nod to the more elevated traditions of the courtly love poetry that so dominated the previous century where Davenant says that the lady opening her eyes will ‘keep the sun in awe’, but this phrase, a parenthesized aside, is surely tongue in cheek, given that the ‘awe’ the lady will keep the awe in is rhymed most contrastingly with ‘straw’.

In any case, lovelorn poets in the Petrarchan tradition are supposed to pine outside their lover’s door, and it sounds very much like the poet here is speaking from inside the bedroom, or at least imagining himself to be so. Or perhaps he is down in the kitchen calling his lover up – in any case, there is no wooing to be done. The beginning of the poem is also ever so slightly sensual, or voyeuristic even: we are watching a woman get dressed here, and Davenant lingers on the details of her doing so  – going so far as to refer to her ‘dock’ – her rump – under the pretence of concern that she keeps herself warm. NOTE: As Cynthia has pointed out in the comments, the voice here could as easily be the woman’s maid or long-time companion rather than her lover, which explains why she’s making her breakfast. Nevertheless, I still detect a little of what feminists call ‘the male gaze’ in the way the poet describes the lady.

The poet contrasts the lady to the people in the neighbourhood who have long-since got up and started their day’s business. The intent here is partly to tease: he cannot surely expect her to follow the example of apprentices, chimney-sweeps and trades-women; she is a lady, after all. But he (or she, if it is a maid speaking) knows she cannot take gladly to being compared to such people. Perhaps the poet is engaging in a little stealth-boasting here too, signalling to his readers that the woman he is addressing is no mere commoner, and on a different social level than apprentices, kitchen girls or chimney sweeps (or, er, prostitutes), which is the very reason she does not actually need to be up as early. I suspect that by modern standards, most everybody in Stuart Britain could be classed an early-riser, but then as now the working classes would be up and about ahead of their social betters. I wonder a little about those French chimney sweeps. Could that be a reference to the play this lyric was taken from, or is a bit of social background from contemporary London? Were Huguenot refugees in seventeenth century London monopolising the chimney cleaning industry? It seems plausible. The other figures alluded to the poem also help to build a picture of a London street of the mid-seventeenth century – young girls selling vegetables, boys shining their masters shoes – before the focus of the poem moves on, and finishes with the comforts of the upper-middle class home, that is, a lovely warm breakfast.

Gruel has a grim association to the modern ear, associated with poverty and flavourlessness, but here it denotes a kind of porridge, and not a particularly bad kind. Sugar sops is bread dunked in sugared water or ale – the English have ever loved food that is comforting though not particularly nutritious. Mace is a kind of nutmeg. I’m not sure how the 2nd century Greek physician would have known of such comforts, but Davenant was presumably well read in the classics, as most poets of his era were, so I guess we’ll have to take his word for it. Another habit the English have preserved down the ages is starting the day with a hot drink, the ‘caudle cup’ of the poem. Since the poem predates the widespread use of tea in England, I’m not quite sure what that hot drink would be – something tasty and not particularly nutritious, I would hazard.

One habit we (unfortunately) haven’t preserved down the ages is starting the day with a nice drink of beer, the pre-tea thirst-quencher of choice in pre-Empire days. ‘Nutbrown ale’ sounds tasty– it’s like something you’d read in the explanatory notes on the label of your craft beer – but there may be a sensual undertone there too. The epithet ‘nut-brown’ had been used since medieval times to describe the skin tone of a working girl, of the kind that poets were sure were less trouble (to woo, to bed and so on) than the pink-skinned daughters of noblemen. Thomas Campion explains her so, giving her the Classical name of Amaryllis:

If I love Amaryllis, 

She gives me fruit and flowers: 

But if we love these ladies, 

We must give golden showers. 

Give them gold, that sell love, 

Give me the nut-brown lass, 

Who, when we court and kiss, 

She cries, “Forsooth, let go!” 

But when we come where comfort is, 

She never will say no. 

I care not for thee Ladies, The New Oxford book of Sixteenth-Century Verse, Ed. Emyrys Jones, Oxford, 1991

The ‘Nut-brown maid’ was also a character in an old ballad, known for her steadfast loyalty to a knight despite the great travails he and she had to go through. It would probably be a bit far-fetched to read much into that, to say for example that Davenant is hinting his lady friend be more like the humble and loyal nut-brown maid, but the association lingers there, perhaps part of the subtle teasing that underlines this otherwise affectionate get out of bed poem.



Filed under Poetry

Shall I come, Sweet Love

A paraclausithyron is a poetic genre that originates in Ancient Greek, meaning ‘lament by a closed door.’ A lover, or suitor speaks aloud by the door of a woman who has refused him entry. Here is a salty example from Asclepiades of the Hellenistic Greek period.

The night is long, and it is winter weather, and night sets when the Pleiads are half-way up the sky. I pass and repass her door, drenched by the rain, smitten by desire of her, the deceiver. It is not love that Cypris smote me with, but a tormenting arrow red-hot from the fire.


Cypris, is another name for the Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love, who was supposed by some to have originated in Cyprus, thus named so. Sherod Santos did away with the Goddess in his translation, and turned the second half of the poem into a question, starting ‘So how have I come / wet and whimpering / as a beaten dog […]? (I would heartily recommend Santos’s Greek Lyric Poetry to anyone – it was one of the books that ignited my interest in poetry about a decade ago; but one must accept his translations as creative, not strictly literal.) A question this brought to my mind was ‘what on earth did those infamously strict Greek fathers think of these lovelorn poets lurking outside their daughter’s doors’?

In this commentary on a paraclausithyron of Ovid, W. Turpin, part-answers the question for me, though it refers to Roman rather than Greek life: the lover is not outside a bedroom door, or even a front door, but the great wooden doors of the great courtyard through which a visitor would have to pass to reach the ‘front doors’ of the house. Thus a ‘paraclausithyron’ is not only a lament by the door, but effectively to the door – no-one else can hear it. In the poem Turpin is discussing, Ovid changes this a little by having the lover address the doorkeeper, a slave actually chained to his post on the inside of the doors, and responsible for letting people in, or not. In contrast to the short, bitter Asclepiades poem, Ovid’s is wry, rambling and somewhat deprecatory. Thus there is the predictable, and, to the modern reader, distasteful comparison of the slave’s actual chains and the lover’s slavery to love. And the lover makes several, part-humorous arguments to the doorkeeper to let him in the door. He leaves a garland of flowers for the girl, as literary convention demands, then, after a few final snipes at the door keeper, bids him farewell and departs.

 And, flowery wreath, which from my brows sadly I disengage, lie there upon this heartless threshold through the night. When on the morrow my mistress shall descry thee trailing there, tell her the hours that, sick at heart, I wasted at her door. Farewell, porter; in spite of all, I say to thee, farewell.

(Transl. J. Lewis May 1930, available here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/ovid/lboo/lboo12.htm)

Farewell then, Ovid, and onto the 16th Century English poet and songwriter, Thomas Campion. In the sense that the speaker is at his love’s door, Campion’s poem can also be classed a paraclausithyron; but unlike Asclepiades’ and Ovid’s protagonist, the speaker addresses not the door, or doorkeeper, but the woman behind the door. Perhaps Campion, classically-minded though he was, wont to set his poems in an Arcadian idyll rather than England, had English houses in mind when he wrote this, although he too seems blithely unconcerned by the thought of the girl’s father.


Shall I come, sweet love, to thee,

When the evening beams are set?

Shall I not excluded be?

Will you find no feigned let?

Let me not, for pity, more

Tell the long hours at your door?


Who can tell what thief or foe,

In the covert of the night,

For his prey will work my woe,

Or through wicked foul despite?

So may I die unredressed,

Ere my long love be possessed.


But to let such dangers pass,

Which a lover’s thoughts disdain,

‘Tis enough in such a place

To attend love’s joys in vain.

Do not mock me in they bed,

While these cold nights freeze me dead.


(This version as printed in the NYRB English Renaissance Poetry, ed. John Williams)
In its humour, the poem sits between the two poets above: he is not as bitter and mournful as Asclepiades, but he does not deprecate the tradition of paraclausithyron as Ovid does. He is significantly more charming than either, and, unlike in the classical poems, there is a sense that he actually believes he might be let in, at least until the last stanza. The poem comes off more as an earnest attempt at a seduction, of sorts, even if in the end he settles for the conventional lover’s consolation of mere proximity to his love. And even if, yes, this seduction comes off as rather odd to our contemporary sensibility, relying as it does on emotional blackmail and shameless appeals to the woman’s pity.

There is a heavy element of carpe diem in the poem – in the suggestion that death is ever present and thus the lover must possess his love whilst he may. A generation or two later, Andrew Marvell would write his most famous poem with this motif in mind, contrasting the pleasures of love and the approaching horrors of death with comic aplomb. Marvell was also more explicit – or reductive – about what ‘possession’ of one’s love might actually entail – ‘tearing our pleasures with rough strife’, as he puts it; but Campion’s poem has the decorum of the drawing room to think of, where such coarse language might send the ladies of the house out blushing. Campion’s poem was, after all, a song too, to be played for a small audience in a domestic setting.

The music is quite as charming as the poem– here for example in the countertenor of Alfred Deller.


Filed under History, Poetry

Whether Men do Laugh or Weep

Whether men do laugh or weep,

Whether they do wake or sleep,

Whether they dies young or old,

Whether they feel heat or cold;

There is, underneath the sun, 

Nothing in true earnest done.


All our pride is but a jest;

None are worst, and none are best;

Grief and joy, and hope and fear,

Play their pageants everywhere:

Vain opinion all doth sway,

And the world is but a play.


Powers above in clouds do sit,

Mocking our poor apish wit,

That so lamely, with such state,

Their high glory imitate;

No ill can be felt but pain,

And that happy men disdain.


Thomas Campion (From English Renaissance Poetry, NYRB, Ed. John Williams)

‘There is no new thing under the sun.’ So goes the King James Bible version of Ecclesiastes 1:9, although we tend to shift it around to ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ Thomas Campion may not have heard that exact line, and, as a Catholic (before the main Catholic English bibles were printed) may never have read the line in English; but he was a great Latinist, and so it is very likely he had read the lines in the Vulgate. In any case, he says something a little different from the Biblical verse. ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ is often taken to mean that originality is not possible, that humans will always behave in more or less the same way, and that the new fashions and ideas are really old fashions and ideas in a new guise. In the context of the Ecclesiastes, it adds weight to the idea that all human endeavours are futile. Campion instead writes: ‘There is nothing underneath the sun / nothing in true earnest done.’ It is not that everything is futile, or anyway, not just that everything is futile, but it is insincere too. ‘It’s all bullsh*t, Baby*’, as a more modern demotic would have it.

The last line of the second stanza will be recognizable to most as almost Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage,’ and like that line, it betrays cynicism about people’s motives – they don’t act the way they do because they want to, but because they’re bound to.

There is often much that is classical in Campion’s songs and poetry, of Arcadia and the Graeco-Roman Gods, and they seem to their appearance here at the beginning of the last stanza, mocking man’s ‘apish wit’. As with many renaissance poets, he can blend Judeo-Christian and pagan mythology without embarrassment: Ecclesiastes in the first stanza, the pagan Gods in the last – though he does not name any Gods, so it is at least arguable that he is referring to God and the saints. But the last two lines, if Campion means them in earnest, certainly suggest a way of thinking with its origins in ancient Greece, the idea that there is no objective good and bad at all, only pain, and that one’s life should be organised around avoiding pain as much as possible. This is the very rational, very unchristian, doctrine of Epicurus.

Epicurus practised philosophy in what came to be known as the Hellenistic period, in the wake of the Alexandrian conquest that finished off the old Greek states for good, and with them their idealism. The Stoics, the Cynics and the Sceptics philosophised in a world where they could not hope to alter events, but had to resign themselves to them, or withdraw from them. Ecclesiastes too was probably written in one of the (many) periods in Jewish history where the Hebrews were subjugated by a greater power, unable to control their own destiny. Political powerlessness breeds fatalism. So whence comes Campion’s fatalism? It could be simply another inheritance of the classics he was so influenced, but it could equally have been born from the circumstances of his own age.

Campion was, as I noted above, a Catholic. Catholicism in no way that I can see informs his work – his is simply not a poetry of religious ideas. But it affected his life. He attended Oxford, but did not graduate – and this is thought to be because Catholics were forbidden at the time from holding degrees from English universities. Many English Catholics in the Elizabethan era rebelled against their sovereign, from those in the north who took up arms against their queen, to the many who were ordained overseas as Jesuits to return and preach in their country, who were often hanged and quartered for their trouble (the most famous of whom shared the poet’s surname –one Edmund Campion), and those involved in plots to put Mary Stewart on the throne. But Campion was not a soldier, nor a priest – he was a poet and songwriter. He made his living in Tudor society as best he could, perhaps as a lawyer when younger, certainly as a doctor when older, and was involved in the great web of patronage around the Howard family, that sometimes crypto-Catholic, sometimes overtly Catholic noble household of great standing and high ambitions. For someone who was not inclined to wholly endorse Elizabeth’s settlement, but was not prepared to suffer the consequences of rebelling against it, a studied classical cynicism was just the thing.

Of course, it wasn’t just Catholics who couldn’t speak their minds in Elizabethan England. There were certain topics on which everyone had to watch their words. Ben Jonson found this to his cost when he was hauled in front of the authorities to account for satirical elements in his play ‘The Isle of Dogs’, which has unfortunately been lost to posterity. Kyd and Marlowe were two more playwrights who ran into trouble for offending the pieties of the day. Better be like Shakespeare and, if one wants to comment on court life, recreate the courts of generations past, those overseas or in a semi-mythical past, and let the audience make the connection to the modern day. Or, like Campion here, speak in the greatest generalities. An Elizabethan listener would likely have thought of Elizabeth’s royal marches at the sound of the word ‘pageant,’ even if Campion’s lines speak of a pageant of abstract entities. ‘Wit’ was a greatly valued characteristic in Elizabethan and Jacobean times, and strongly associated with the court and the monarchs, who like to test their own verbal dexterity on their cleverest courtesans: and yet here, the Gods, or God, looks down on such cleverness with scorn – rather Campion does. He can safely excoriate the powerful of his own age by talking about the powerful of all ages.

Many of Campion’s poems were also songs, and many of their tunes have survived to the modern day. I must profess ignorance on this one – I don’t know whether Campion (or his collaborator Rossiter) ever set this to music, or, if they did, whether it survived for posterity. All that seems to come up on the web is Vaughan Williams’ song. Williams song in any case is worth listening to, a mixed choir and piano arrangement. It’s beautifully uplifting – and that makes perfect sense to anyone who has experienced the relief of just not caring anymore…

*This is almost a quote from People Ain’t No Good, a lovely bit of miserablism from that most poetic of modern crooners, Nick Cave


Filed under Poetry

Now winter nights enlarge

This week’s poem, by late 16th / early 17th century poet and composer Thomas Campion, has an accompanying tune to go with it, so to get in the mood, throw a log on the fire (or anyway put your central heating on) and listen to this lovely little cockle-warming lute number, courtesy of Maurice Cope on Youtube.

Now before you accuse me of jumping the gun by writing about ‘winter poetry’ in October. But Campion is talking not about snow, ice and the yuletide, but about the time of year when the nights start most noticeably to draw in, and that is, in fact, about now. In countries like Britain, where we’re obliged to fiddle with the clocks twice a year, it is exactly now, because the clocks ‘go back’ today, and – unless you’re an early riser – it suddenly feels like you have a lot less daylight to play with. Campion’s poem bids us not to despair.

Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their hours;
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.

Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o’erflow with wine,
Let well-turned words amaze
With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love
While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights
Sleep’s leaden spells remove.

This time doth well dispense
With lovers’ long discourse;
Much speech hath some defense,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys,
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys,
They shorten tedious nights

The poem – and song – have a courtly, medieval feel, and Campion is notably less modern than many of his contemporaries. As you might expect from a songwriter, Campion’s poetry is a poetry of sound and wordplay – its imagery is often less than impressive:

clouds their storms discharge

Upon the airy towers
This reads like a strange mix between a meteorological report and an estate agent’s description; it doesn’t for me conjure the drama of winter weather in England. Maybe I’m missing a clever pun.

I didn’t miss this example of rather arch rhyming though:
Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o’erflow with wine,
Let well-turned words amaze
With harmony divine.

Campion’s words do indeed harmonise, slightly blasphemously perhaps, as the coupling of ‘wine’ to ‘divine’ might bring to mind the presence of Christ in the eucharist, even to Campion’s post-Reformation audience. This is followed by a slightly clumsy bee metaphor at the end of the first stanza, and some heavy lawyerly word play at the beginning of the second, which befuddled me slightly.

I did appreciate the self-aggrandising punning of this quatrain:
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read

Don’t believe that faux-modesty for a moment. Obviously, we are meant to think he is one of those smooth poem readers. Those ‘measures’ have a double meaning here too though: on the face of it, dancing, but also his own well-metered stanzas. and of course, with his constant wordplay, Campion is a skilful riddler too – this quatrain is itself a cheeky riddle. Not everyone is good at everything, he is saying, except me!

For a poem that is effectively an ode to the romance of winter nights, the ending is curiously negative, both about that love – whose delights are mere toys, and the ‘tedious’ nights themselves. I personally find winter’s nights rather charming, and the pleasures of love no mere bagatelles. Perhaps it is the tricksy poem itself that Campion is labelling love’s mere toy. Or perhaps the poem just doesn’t bear too much close analysis. It is, nevertheless, a fitting introduction to the darker days of the year. To those of you putting your clocks back, do enjoy that compensatory delight – your extra hour’s lie in.


Filed under Poetry